The Audio Beat 07/20108
". . . if you think it's the finest Wilson speaker not named WAMM Master Chronosonic, you'll get no argument from me."
Watching, and hearing, Wilson Audio speakers evolve for the past twenty years has been a fascinating exercise. Models have come and gone, and the shapes have changed. Construction, materials, drivers, passive parts -- all have been refined over time, not so much radically but meaningfully in terms of the sonic result.
But one thing hasn't changed: the primacy of time-domain accuracy, the notion that the output of the drivers arriving at the listener's ears at precisely the correct moment is paramount to realistic musical reproduction. Other speaker makers believe that flat frequency response, wide dispersion or consistent phase, all of which Wilson Audio considers as well, is of utmost importance. But as the WAMM Master Chronosonic, with its intricate, infinitely adjustable and very expensive mechanism, displays in an extreme way, time-domain accuracy is Wilson Audio's North Star, the company's guiding principle, and that continues to be the case with each new speaker released.
There is no timing EQ, no way to re-create the precise relationship between the pluck of a bass string and a drummer's strike.
Why focus on time-domain accuracy? Because unlike an imbalance in frequency response, which can be addressed and corrected at various points, you can't restore time-domain artifacts that are lost. There is no timing EQ, no way to re-create the precise relationship between the pluck of a bass string and a drummer's strike. Once that relationship is gone, it's gone for good. This is the mantra that the late Dave Wilson wrote by as an audio reviewer, and it's also what he designed by as a speaker manufacturer. It was his obsession, and I heard him discuss it more than once, most recently in relation to the WAMM Master Chronosonic, which is so time correct that it can allow an astute listener to hear the time smear in electronics and even cables. The same principle is at work in every Wilson Audio speaker.
So it's no surprise that the Series 2 version of Wilson Audio's Alexia speaker improves on its predecessor's already exacting time accuracy. The Alexia was released in 2012, ostensibly as an upgrade for owners of the WATT/Puppy and Sasha speakers, because it occupied roughly the same amount of floor space. It featured three separate driver modules, each independently adjustable both forward and backward as well as in terms of rake angle, all done to effect greater time accuracy. The Alexia 2 has a more advanced mechanism for adjustment of the tweeter module, allowing twice the number of increments and even greater alignment precision. Additionally, the woofer baffle is angled so it more correctly integrates the bass with the upper frequencies. You can see these refinements in the inset, machined-aluminum alignment scales on the rear of the speaker and the compound angles on the front and sides of the bass cabinet, each adding to the speaker's design and manufacturing complexity (and cost). However, it's the sonic outcome, which is the product of time accuracy below the crucial 15ms threshold in the 5-10kHz frequency range, for which Wilson Audio goes to such lengths.
Headlining the Alexia 2's drivers is the Mk 5 version of Wilson's Convergent Synergy tweeter, the same tweeter used in the WAMM Master Chronosonic. This 1" silk-dome tweeter was designed by Wilson Audio and partially manufactured by Scan-Speak -- "partially" meaning that Scan-Speak manufactures the dome, magnet and flange to Wilson Audio's specs, while Wilson Audio manufactures all of the rear elements of the driver. The Mk 5 designation doesn't mean this tweeter is intrinsically better than the Mk 4 version, which the Alexx uses, or the Mk 3, which the Sasha 2 has, but rather that the specific modifications to it are more suitable for its use in the Alexia 2.
Among the considerations for the tweeter is its bandwidth, especially the bottom of its range, which affects its ability to blend with the Alexia 2's 7" midrange, whose size means that the tweeter must reach down to it. As with the tweeter's silk dome, the midrange's cone, a composite of cellulose and paper pulp, was chosen for its sonic properties, including its ability to convey dynamic contrasts. I would add, having now heard this driver used in multiple Wilson speakers, that it also sounds eerily natural, unlike so many midrange drivers with either aluminum or ceramic cones -- materials that can impart a sonic signature of their own.
The Alexia 2 is the smallest Wilson speaker to use two woofers of different sizes, a strategy that's both unique (I can't think of another speaker manufacturer that employs it) and difficult to implement successfully (which, come to think of it, may be why it's unique). The Alexia 2's 8" and 10" woofers also have composite paper-pulp cones, so their sonic qualities, which include weight, power and dynamic impact, blend successfully with those of the speaker's midrange.
Wilson Audio continues to pioneer the use of advanced materials in its cabinets, reasoning that commonly used materials such as MDF or machined aluminum have deleterious effects on sound quality. Accordingly, the Alexia 2's cabinet features a mix of proprietary composite materials, each chosen for its sonic characteristics in particular locations within the overall design. The third generation of Wilson's X-Material is used in the Alexia's bass cabinet and tweeter module, where its extreme rigidity -- it's harder than steel -- and damping properties yield the greatest results. S-Material is used in the Alexia 2's midrange module, for which its damping and midband-enhancing musical traits are ideal. W-Material, developed for the WAMM Master Chronosonic, is used in the modules’ spike-support areas to reduce the transmission of unwanted energy at mechanical interface points.
Perhaps due to an increase in cabinet volume, the Alexia 2's vent positions have changed. In addition, the bracing schemes for the bass cabinet and midrange module have been further refined, and their inside faces have geometric patterns milled into them, in order to reduce internally reflected energy. The hardware for wire management includes gas-tight fittings that reduce the number of internal solder joints.
Finally, new hardware on the rear of the Alexia 2 improves the speaker’s looks, giving it a more polished appearance. Wilson Audio has long produced some of the most visually sumptuous audio products, owing to the exacting, glossy paint finish of the cabinets. With the Alexia 2, as with all recent Wilson Audio speakers, the machined hardware has caught up aesthetically to the cabinets. The rear of the Alexia 2 looks sleek and high-tech, with the resistors used to tailor the speaker's frequency response shown behind an aluminum-and-glass panel. As with the choice of cabinet color (including new satin and matte finishes), you can choose whether your Alexia 2 has anodized silver or black hardware, giving it more than mere visual hints of a luxe sports car. The Alexia 2 is an objet d'art, one that also happens to make beautiful music.
John Giolas, Wilson Audio's marketing director, set up the Alexia 2s in my large listening room, and he did so with knowledge gained from setting up so many other speakers here over the years. In a completely unknown room, he would begin by mapping out the "zones of neutrality," those spots where the room itself makes the least contribution to the sound. Then, vertical and horizontal axes are marked out in tape on the floor, followed by measurements from the listening seat (which may be moved) and to the listener's ears. For Wilson speakers with multiple modules, these data are used to determine the positions for the midrange and tweeter. They're also used to make rough determinations of where to begin placing the speakers, the axes used to fine-tune the positions. All important and final data are recorded, so results can be re-created if need be. It's interesting to page through the folder on my listening room -- to see just how many Wilson speakers have been set up here and the positive comments about the room that have been recorded.
Because of his abundant experience with my room, John was able to skip right to the rough positioning of the Alexia 2s, followed by measuring the distance to my listening seat and the height of my ears when seated. After the assembly of the speakers, which arrive in three wooden crates, rough placement and alignment of the upper modules for listening distance and height commenced. Then the speakers were moved forward and back, right and left, in small increments until their final placement was determined and they were spiked.
At this point, John performed two relatively new additions to his setup regimen. First, he fastidiously leveled the speakers right to left and front to back. This was difficult with some older Wilson speakers, because of the lack of suitable flat surfaces on which to place the level, but not with the Alexia 2. Then, after everything seemed just right, he made one more adjustment, moving the tweeter modules ahead one increment, 1/32". I listened and some of the transient fidelity and suddenness were lost. He then moved the tweeters back 1/32" from the original position, so 1/16" back from where they just were. This time the ambience was reduced, the soundstage sounding flatter. So he returned them to the original positions and all was right again -- the best of both worlds. This is where the tweeter modules remained.
While this exercise with the tweeter modules may seem like the proverbial picking of nits, what it illustrated was how critical the Alexia 2's time alignment was to the sound produced -- very critical indeed -- and also why Wilson Audio creates speakers that require such fine adjustment. I would not have argued that the sound was wrong no matter the position of the tweeters, but it was easy to hear that it was most right with the tweeters in the original positions. These were also the positions that Wilson Audio's own calculations indicated, but John said that sometimes, in some rooms, the 1/32" movement forward or back sounded best, unleashing all that the Alexia 2 was capable of. While it may seem overly fussy that 1/32" means so much to a speaker's performance, to my mind, it ultimately proves the Alexia 2's high fidelity and high resolution. Just as with a microscope, the fine adjustments are the ones that bring things into focus.
The Alexia 2 followed the Wilson Audio Alexx in my listening room -- a tall order both literally and figuratively. The Alexx is not only more than a foot taller than the Alexia 2, but also more complex, with its large bass cabinet and individual modules for the dual midranges and tweeter. However, from the very beginning of my listening, I was stunned by the Alexia 2, so much so, in fact, that I wrote confidently in my listening notes "the best-sounding Wilson speaker I've heard in my room." And this boiled down to coherence, the sense that what I was hearing wasn't the product of a multitude of cabinet materials, drivers, passive parts and metal pieces, but rather that of a single, unified entity. Yes, the music seemed "of a piece" and "to emanate from a single full-range driver," to quote a few audio bromides, but it was also something beyond, something greater.
The Alexia 2 was, again from my listening notes, "a breakthrough, a new door of perception."
Okay, I admit that this is some flowery language, perhaps literally hard to believe, but "hard to believe" described what I was hearing from the Alexia 2s, in isolation and especially when mentally compared to the many speakers I've heard in my room. The Alexia 2s sounded calm in a way that let the music simply emerge, free of the cabinets. This had seemed possible only with speakers that sounded fundamentally light and airy, which may seem appealing until you hear the sin of commission, the distorted spectral balance, responsible for it. But the Alexia 2 achieved it without sounding weak and insubstantial, without edge or undue emphasis. That is a way of saying that the Alexia 2 conveyed both truth and beauty to the extreme, yet it achieved this in such a way as to cause questioning about how exactly it was done. The music was naturally detailed. While I would never describe the Alexia 2 as colored or ruthlessly revealing, I could use both of these terms -- and many others -- to describe the various recordings I played, so poised and honest was the Alexia 2. But at the same time, the speaker presented the music with great presence and ambience, increased inner beauty and fine detail, all of which helped it defy easy categorization.
A few musical examples. My reverence for Suzanne Vega's great Close-Up Series five-CD, one-DVD set [Amanuensis 2507] has only grown the more I've listened to its many, many cuts on many, many iterations of my system -- as amps, preamps, digital sources, cables and speakers have come and gone. It's musically comprehensive, collecting stripped-down versions of songs written over the course of more than twenty years. It's also a special recording, offering great presence and a well-focused view of the various venues in which the various recordings were made. While I've not heard the vinyl, which is sold by the individual volume, Roy Gregory reports that it sounds far better than the CDs.
All that I describe about the recordings was more evident with the Alexia 2, along with an endearing combination of tonal color and consistency. It's easy to think that the Alexia 2 is a supremely high-resolution speaker, given the sheer amount of musical information it conveys, especially 3D, flesh-on-bone from just about any cut on Close-Up Series, though especially "Bad Wisdom" and "My Favorite Plum." The coherence, time and tonal, was supreme, Vega's band sounding tighter and more powerfully real. The only comparison I can think of here is an electrostat, which covers a range from the highest treble to the upper bass with an actual single driver. However, the bass often ends up ruining the illusion, sounding thin, disconnected from the midrange, or both. With the Alexia 2, the bass simply flowed from the midrange down to its very depths. With "Blood Makes Noise" from Close-Up Series, the electric bass was clear, very deep and very impactful, and then on Cracker's downer cover of "Rainy Days and Mondays," from the two-CD compilation Garage D'or [Virgin 49005], it was positively atmospheric, spreading throughout the room like a growing puddle. In neither case was it detached from the rest of the spectrum; in fact, it was just the opposite, the lowest frequencies carrying over from everything happening above, the Alexia 2's four drivers sounding like one throughout their range.
As with all recent-vintage Wilson speakers, the soundstage the Alexia 2s cast was absolutely immense in all dimensions. Once spiked, the speakers were more than ten feet apart, center to center, and they routinely placed images outside their lateral positions. Depth was even more impressive; the soundstage often began in front of the speakers and continued to beyond the wall behind them.
But as I've noted in other reviews of recent Wilson speakers -- even the smallest floorstander, the Sabrina -- it was the height of singers and musicians that had me and others who heard the Alexia 2 shaking our heads in disbelief, with everything from Ella Fitzgerald to Led Zeppelin. I will mention once again a very effective test for divulging how well speakers portray height. Play a recording you know well that has a solid center image, preferably a voice. Close your eyes and point to where that center image comes from, then open your eyes. With the Alexia 2, you may give out a chuckle when you open your eyes, because, depending on the recording, you'll be pointing to a spot two feet or more above the speakers. I can suggest many recordings to illustrate this, but I assure you that you have many that are just as impressive in your collection right now.
The tone and timbre of the Alexia 2 were eerily realistic when the recording was able to oblige. It was here, in fact, where the Alexia 2 was its most unerring, never presenting a skewed tonal balance or shift in timbre a place to hide. So many revealing speakers goose the lower treble/upper-midrange region, presenting greater apparent detail, often with concomitant glare or edge. Well, the Alexia 2s are highly revealing, but that comes from a deeper, more musically complex place -- perhaps time coherence, perhaps the expert blending of the drivers by the crossover networks, probably both of these things, along others I've mentioned. These are honest speakers that reveal honestly, and thereby they are very easy speakers to listen to, with good or bad recordings. You will hear, clearly and forcefully, whatever is fed to them, but you won't hear some aberration of the speaker itself in the process.
It occurred to me at various points while I was listening to the Alexia 2, and taking copious notes on what I heard, that its assortment of wide-ranging strengths seemed unique and yet somehow familiar. Then it came to me: In the ability to address both small-scale and bombastic music skillfully, to convey poise and power equally well, the Alexia 2 reminded me of the dCS Vivaldi 2.0 digital system that I reviewed (and continue to covet). Pushing this further to include the Alexia 2's dynamic agility, I thought of the various Sheffield Labs LPs I own. Say what you want about the music, but the sound of these direct-to-disc LPs is something else -- of absolute demonstration quality. The Alexia 2 displayed the same sort of easy, effortless dynamic abilities at both the low and high ends of the range.
The choice of amplifier for the original Alexia was considered critical, because that speaker had a punishing dip in its impedance in the bass. Addressing this became a goal in the redesign of the speaker, and I can say that, with the aid of the Alexia 2's sensitivity (89dB/W/m), I was able to use a variety of amps without issue, none an absolute powerhouse (the Lamm M1.2 monoblocks were the most powerful, at a rated output of 110 watts). Two were particularly interesting. A pair of 1980s-vintage Kenwood L-07M monoblocks were poised and capable from the bass region up -- their bass is inherently light overall -- while a Sonance 260, a 60Wpc stereo amp that's readily available used for under $50, was a real treat, not because it bettered either the Lamm or Kenwood monoblocks, but because it drove the speakers without issue or complaint. Of course, only the Lamm amps are likely to be used with the Alexia 2, and this was a wholly impressive combination, but the other amps showed that the Alexia 2 is not exactly fussy in terms of partnering equipment. In fact, I wished I had a pair of 18-watt Lamm ML2.2 SET monoblocks on hand, as I suspect they would not only drive the speakers, but form a surprisingly potent, intensely musical union.
As mentioned earlier, the Alexia 2 immediately followed the Alexx ($109,500 per pair) in my system, making head-to-head comparison easy and essential. The Alexx was our Product of the Year for 2017, and in my review I questioned how it would compare to the speaker directly above it in the Wilson product line, the Alexandria XLF ($210,000 per pair). I wasn't able to answer that question with any certainty, because I hadn't heard the XLFs in such a long time. But since my review of the Alexx, I've gotten some convincing anecdotal evidence in support of the less expensive speaker.
Well, I have to complicate matters and say that the Alexia 2 also needs to be included in this conversation. Putting aside that all three speakers display the triumvirate of Wilson Audio strengths -- coherence, dynamics and bass power -- very well, the Alexia 2 simply sounded more coherent with the wide array of music I played. And while it couldn't compete with the bigger speakers, and their bigger woofers, in terms of bass power, that coherence, extreme as it was, was simply too engrossing to consider the bass the arbiter of overall quality. There was also the Alexia 2's sense of inherent poise, its high resolution and relaxed way presenting detail, that gave it a musical advantage. The bigger speakers, with their higher sensitivities, were more overtly dynamic, showy even, but the Alexia 2 was never dynamically reticent.
To be fair, I must point out, as John Giolas did, that the additions to his regimen between the Alexx and Alexia 2 setups -- that careful leveling of the speakers and final tweaking of the tweeter modules -- had become crucial to wringing the last iota of performance from the speakers. Of course, this made me wonder if doing these things to my Alexx setup would have made their superiority clear. I suspect so, if for no reason other than John Giolas's insistence that it would. Stay tuned for more on this.
The Alexia 2 has an interesting place in Wilson Audio's product line, residing, as it does, at the junction between the compact floorstanders like the Sabrina, Yvette and Sasha 2, though it was clearly designed to be in league with the company's biggest speakers, the Alexx, Alexandria XLF and WAMM Master Chronosonic. This is not hyperbole; the Alexia 2 sounds like its larger relatives but also has its own seductive strengths. The coherence of Wilson Audio speakers has been without parallel among dynamic speakers for many years, and the Alexia 2 sets a new standard here. These mid-sized speakers are resolving without edge, down to the very noise floor, and they can re-create a soundstage that's impressive in its size and the size of the musicians. It can sound warm and present, raucous and transient-forward, spacious and intimate, depending on the recording.
It has multiple personalities, each of which can impress in isolation, but it's when the speaker brings them together that its true character -- the Alexia 2's supreme coherence -- becomes known.
Back when I wrote about the Wilson Sabrina, I called it "Wilson Audio's best speaker, ever." That statement needed a bit more explanation at the time and even more so in light of the Alexia 2. I didn't mean that the Sabrina was simply better than every other Wilson speaker; instead, I meant that, taking the performance of the Sabrina as well as its price ($15,900 per pair) into consideration, it was the finest speaker Wilson had created -- the one whose sound most belied its stature and price. Well, I now need to parse my words even further, because the Alexia 2 also belies its price and stature, and in more obvious fashion.
I know that discussing, even briefly, a fourth (or is it fifth?) Wilson speaker in this review may not clarify in the way I hope it will, but, as we audio reviewers like to proclaim, I have to call 'em like I hear 'em. If you end up with the Alexia 2, you'll own one of the very best speakers from one of high-end audio's most acclaimed companies; and if you think it's the finest Wilson speaker not named WAMM Master Chronosonic, you'll get no argument from me.